this Article Reprinted by permission of NerdWallet.
It seems like all my friends got COVID this summer, and many think they got it on the plane. But that’s as far as data gets. what do you know Science Should I say?
I spoke with Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-wrote a recent paper modeling the risk of contracting COVID while flying early in the pandemic. He and his students built a complex mathematical model to determine the risk of infection using the available data. Yet they ran into limitations, because neither the United States nor any other country had made any concerted effort to systematically address Covid transmission on airplanes.
“Nobody’s been screened. Nobody’s been asked if they’ve come down with Covid,” he explains. “There was no attempt to find out where people got it from. We have very little data. “
That’s right, of all the billions spent fighting the virus, supplying home testing kits and bailing out airlines, little has been spent on answering the basic question of where and how people actually contracted the disease. Models such as Barnett’s, while useful, offer only best approximations.
“If we had real data from the United States, then we wouldn’t need the model,” he says.
A systematic attempt to trace the flight that landed in Vietnam revealed that, of the 16 passengers who tested positive, 12 were in business class, where a symptomatic case was found. In other words, a bunch of high priced ticket holders at the front of the plane got sick from the same person.
However, this study of National Hygiene and Epidemiology of Vietnam was conducted in March 2020. Imagine what would have happened if we had been collecting data throughout the pandemic.
See also: What will insurance coverage of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments be like? The Biden administration is trying to figure that out
Cast your mind back to Fall 2020. The first COVID wave had passed and incoming travelers were wondering: Is it safe to fly home for the holidays?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on a bizarre study by several federal agencies involving mannequins coughing on each other, suggested that “many viruses and other germs don’t spread easily on flights because of how the air circulates and is filtered in airplanes.”
You may remember that study. You may not know (like I didn’t until recently) that the researchers who performed this received so much criticism that they added a disclaimer, suggesting the study’s findings “were not designed to provide actionable information about viral risk during flight, safe flight. Time or seat ability.”
The CDC has removed its message and reference to the study, while airlines such as United Airlines continue to cite it as evidence of air travel safety.
The United Airlines website still cites the problematic study.
I was writing about all of this in 2020, trying to parse these confusing messages, and I used the mannequin study as evidence that flying wasn’t as dangerous as we first thought.
Turns out I was wrong, but I never learned I was wrong until years later.
The real problem is not a poorly interpreted study. It’s that we still don’t know if people contracted (and died from) Covid after getting on the plane. Are 1% of COVID Cases Caused by Air Travel? Or 10%? More?
We don’t know, and it could have a big impact down the road.
Read: What frequent-flying celebs — and the shock they got — tell us about the rise in private jet popularity
Flying into the unknown
Barnett’s model spits out a nice round number, which was about 1,000 in 1,000 at the start of the pandemic. But he believes the risks have increased significantly since then.
“The Omicron BA.5 is much more contagious than previous versions,” says Barnett. “And now people are largely not wearing masks on airplanes.”
Thankfully, vaccines and treatments have reduced the death rate of COVID, so the risks are more manageable. But what if a new version emerges — knock on wood — that avoids vaccines altogether? Or (no, really, knock on wood) cause serious illness in young people or children? We all want real answers to simple questions: How bad is COVID transmission on planes? Is one airline safer than another?
Crazy, shockingly, head scratching, we still don’t know for sure.
“All models are wrong, some are useful,” Barnett says with a smile.
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Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sambubutdif.